“I just heard that the great English poet Roy Fisher died today, not long after Tom Raworth passed. They were the two most important non-American poets for me in the early 70s. I corresponded with Raworth but never met him. I interviewed Fisher in 1973 with my friend Mike Erwin, who died not long afterward. Roy was the consummate host/interviewee, sensitive to our plight as 20 year olds subsisting for the month of November in a country that then had little or no indoor heating, nor did we have much in the way of sustenance. So he and his wife, somehow surmising this the moment we walked in the door, cooked us up a few omelettes that remain one of the grace notes of my lifetime. His poetry has always been, and will continue to be, a benchmark for me of unfussy clarity, commitment, and human value. Adieu, poet!”
It was his good friend, Eric Mottram, who introduced me to Roy & his poetry in the early seventies — & I completely concur with Jed’s evaluation. A gracious man, a superb poet & a sweet jazz piano player. Unhappily too little known in this country. You can check out some Fisher facts such as Roy Fisher in conversation with John Tranter (Jacket 1, December 2001) or read An essay on Fisher by Marjorie Perloff or check out a video here. I will try to locate Eric Mottram’s essay on Roy & post here in the next few days. Below, also some extracts from Rasula’s interview.
When I got home I immediately pulled out The Ship’s Orchestra, Fisher’s magisterial prose text of 1966 (in that gorgeous square first edition by Fulcrum with a wood engraving by David Jones on the cover.) Here are the opening 3 pages:
The Ivory Corner was only a wooden section of wall painted white, at the intersection of two passageways. To the left of it was the longer corridor; to the right at once there was the washroom door.
Ivory Corner for leaning against, the white pressing the forehead, the wood’s vertical grain flickering beneath it up and down across the horizontals of the eyelids.
Washroom door swings, has weight, has rubber silencers. Limbs overhanging it from the Ivory Corner get foggy, the elbow gone, winging; a hand spread on the panel beside it stays brown and dry and shiny.
Always the chance of meeting that walking white suit with a big orange on it for a head; the white yellowed a little, as if through some sort of commerce with urine.
Then it was her black (purple, juice) net dress, rough to the touch, things grew so big in the dark. Or lacquered hair, dry and crisp as grey grass. Want it to come away in handfuls, and she be meek, and satisfied, as far as that. Plimsolls, the smell of feet in a boys’ gymnasium. Learn to live with it.
Merrett calls his saxophone a tusk. What shape is the field of vision the eyes experience? Its edges cannot be perceived. A pear-shape, filled with the white plastic tusk, rimmed and ringed and keyed with snarly glitters, floating importantly. Where? Against a high, metallic and misty sunset, the sky like Canada in thaw, and Billy Budd’s feet dangling out of heaven five miles up, through a long purplish cloud.
Potential fracture of Merrett’s saxophone : by stamping, quick treading, sudden intemperate swing against an upright. In section rather like the break in a piece of dry coconut. No, it would not be likely to bleed. Just the steward brushing up bits of powdered saxophone from the saloon carpet, and Merrett, if surviving, looking out to sea.
Behind the rubber-stoppered door, the birth-basins.
Then it was her back, so broad and curved and deeply cleft, doughy and dry to the touch, like some porous cushioning that could not feel. The desiccated hair, yes, distinctly loose; all my senses precarious. I thought of the sheets as black, all hard things there as ebonite, the indulgent back as very faintly luminous where I touched it; yet I was aware of something brusque in the air : a scented bonfire.
At times the sea rises uniformly to become much of the sky, harmless, translucent, golden-grey, with the great sun billowing down under the keel and flaking off itself from ear to ear. A wake of hundreds of scooped-out grapefruit halves.
Amy, too, in some of her moods, calls her trombone an axe. And the piano, whether I play it or not, is one of the kinds of box. Tusk, axe, box together joined. White baby grand box in scalloped alcove.
Janus, old door-god, your front face is alabaster, fringed with tooled curls, your cheeks and frontal prominences agleam; but a petrified, pitted arse, rained on for centuries, is all that confronts what’s on the other side.
Dougal never actually speaks of his bass, even. But Joyce, the girl on drums, doesn’t know too much yet. Judge the moment right and we can get her to call them anything. Tubs. Cans. Bins. Bubs.
A waterfall of orange-coloured deckchair canvas, from top to bottom as far as I can see either way without moving my eyes. And a long scroll — I can see the bottom of that, it is weighted with a short pole — covered with dimly printed instructions and transit data. Between these two, the projecting angle of two white-tiled walls at intersection. A narcissistic young passenger — I did not notice of which sex — has just left the picture, dressed for sunbathing.
And here, a few pages from the interview Jed Rasula & Mike Erwin did with Roy Fisher in November 1973, and which was first published in Fisher’s chapbook 19 Poems & an Interview (Grosseteste Press, 1975):
Jed Rasula & Mike Erwin
AN INTER VIEW WITH ROY FISHER
RASULA: You often deal with things in your work in terms of archetypes: “City” and “The Ship’s Orchestra” are full of details, but not with the kind of information that would normally tie a work down to a particular locality in time. Do you think this is a matter of conscious attention to the particulars of your subject matter, or whether there is something else involved? In other words, that the essential material is gotten at most readily by a suspension of temporal ties and attention to details of locality?
FISHER: I’m interested in getting an effect of indeterminacy in those things. Most of the “City” writing is meant to be about a city which has already turned into a city of the mind. Where the writing is topographical it’s meant to do with the EFFECTS of topography, the creation of scenic moments, psychological environments, and it’s not meant to be an historical/spatial city entailed to empirical reality. With “The Ship’s Orchestra” there is a very particular exercise of that sort going on. Because it was a thing devised to be a study of people on a ship. Which is a thing I’d never done, I hadn’t travelled on a ship. I had no intention of ever doing so, particularly, and I have no knowledge of maritime matters at all. And I chose the ship very particularly, not as a symbol or archetype of a voyage, although the book is full (I hope) of jokes about the archetype of voyage, and so on and so on. But in that book, yes, I wanted to be writing about something I didn’t know about, which was not entailed to any sort of reality and which was in fact made up of all kinds of fantastic impressions: you know, it was a ship off a movie, a ship out of children’s illustrations, a ship out of other people’s poems, that sort of thing. And that is for me very important — to make it fairly clear without making lurid effects, and make it fairly clear that the thing that’s being written is an artifact, is to do with the subjective.
RASULA: “The Ship’s Orchestra” has struck me as interesting in its similarities with John Ashbery’s “Three Poems.” Both books — and this is more where the similarity lies — have an extreme sort of concentration which is like wringing water out of a washcloth, wringing something dry. And the striking contrast though is that your work is
developed around things and Ashbery’s around ideas. The “thinking” in “The Ship’s Orchestra” seems to me to proceed on the level of perceptual attentions rather than any sort of logic or cohesion of thought as a logical process. And I wonder if it would be off the mark to say that by directing your efforts to the things on the ship and by lifting any specific temporal identities the work comes over to a reader as functioning on a level of archetypes?
FISHER: Archetypes? Because I deal with things which could hold archetypal significance, you mean? Instead of turning it into a discourse about the things?
FISHER: If I could perhaps answer that in two parts. Yes, I certainly accept that I work by perceptual attentions. For me the thing had to be grounded in sensations and in refinements of sensation, and indeed the book is written as an elaboration of almost hallucinatory sensory effects — tactile, olfactory, visual of course, auditory. And the book in fact has a fairly simple base vocabulary of colours, substances, things like grey mucus, saline tastes, things which are body tastes, body sensations, and things in the world. And it’s an exploration of familiar body sensations extended throughout a small perceived world. And any intellectual play that takes place is meant to be seen as a possibly futile, bemusing, almost certainly erroneous play over the commands of a rule of sensation. That’s partly because I don’t have any training in logic or any education in abstract thinking or any inclination towards it. I’ve got a great distrust of it. And, you know, partly through sheer pleasure in wanting to write a book which expounded a very limited register of sensations and make it more and more elaborate until it could rapidly generate characters and generate action and make sort of turns on its own.
So that’s why i(‘s different from the Ashbery thing. As for how it moves towards an archetypal reading, I don’t know. If I was to catch hold of seeing anything like that as I wrote I would almost certainly want to make a joke of it, or simply (and I think I did this, in fact) include or envelop the archetypal reading into the ordinary play of ideas. And in fact I think on the first page there’s a little brief vision of Billy Budd’s feet dangling out of heaven, which in one sense is meant to signal that I know all about Melville, you know, the moment we set to sea. And I know all about…. That sounds arrogant, but I mean I’m aware of the great ladder of authority the moment I start talking about any sort of hierarchy or any sort of achievement or any kind of judgement or justice.
I think really the point about this is that in the writing I’m not interested in making a structure which has got a climax, a thing which has got an authoritarian centre, a rule or mandate somewhere in its middle which the work will unfold and will reach. I’m much more interested in simply…. Not writing towards a middle but making all the possible ways of accounting for this perceptual attention, this perceptual field, I’m making all the possible ways of accounting for its fight for survival, take their own chance one with another, without any sort of hierarchal thing. So while I wouldn’t deny that maybe if any feeling comes up in a piece of writing like that it might be because I’m quite happy to appeal, if you like, to archetypal things because we must, because they’re there, they’re in the vocabulary of all the things we do. They’re not structural, they’re incidental. There are passages that tend toward the general, the exemplary. There’s a bit where somebody’s had a baby, given birth to a child inside an airplane tyre. And all right, the airplane tyre is a female orifice maybe, maybe not — it could be a house or a dwelling, it could be a pathetic statement. But there is a baby and it’s quite intentional really that there should be a feeling of pathos, of emotion, towards birth and the naked babe at that point. It’s not a key, though, it’s an incidental thing which is fed in and generated by my feeling at the time.
The other thing to say about the piece of writing is that, along with a lot of things I do, it was rigorously composed in an additive form. That is, each section was written in an attempt to refer only to what I had already written in that work, and without any drive forward at all. It’s not a work of pure method, but to get a starter and then to recycle, reprogramme the thinking, the mental sensations of what had gone before, and see what the field that I had laid down was in fact spawning and producing, and then to stop and to see what, let’s say the first four parts plus the fifth part which I’d just written — what that bred. And then I’d write the sixth and then I’d see what parts 1 to 6 bred. So if anything came up with any structural look to it, it could only have a structural leverage as long as that.
ERWIN: In a poem “For Realism” in “Collected Poems 1968” you write, “A conscience / builds, late, on a ridge. A realism tries to record, before they’re gone, / what silver filth these drains have run.” Does that indicate a sort of a feeling on your part of responsibility for public welfare or sociological concern, in a sense? That you try to engender in your poetry?
FISHER: I don’t do that very often. That poem in fact has more social comment to do with a particular moment than I usually employ. But one thing that I would like to be able to do, as a sort of technical problem, is to make a double use of the ordinary data of sense. That is, to write about, shall we say, a city which exists in space and time and has a name and is not a city which is already ment-alized or internalized in the way I was describing in my answer to your first question. I would like to be able to use names, to name names, not as brute documentation, not as a brute documentary thing, but to have floated real things into a Active world and use them without distancing them at all. Anyway, in that particular poem I had it in mind that very often in trying to evoke urban things I had as it were dissolved things and made them strange so that I was free from the entailments of them in ordinary reality, so that I could in fact use them within the compass of my own perceptual thinking, my own way of working. The conscience I had was that this was always distorting, which I accepted. But I had an ambition to make the transaction so clean that I could just take from a thing — a street with a name to it — sufficient properties to exist verbally in my poem and at the same time to be answerable to the reality should anybody go and look at it. I was writing about a street people could recognize, but I still was writing about a street that was in my poem and not just stupidly reported as it might be in a very ordinary piece of documentary. Now, that explains why in that poem, unusually for me, I take an actual scene (streets with names to them, things which more or less happened as they’re reported, a particular hour, particular time and consequently a particular moment in urban rebuilding) — they are pulling the place down and they are building the flats. And this was a place which was real to me, a place with family association. I think the business about social responsibility comes in very simply, in that you only had to be in that place and look at that thing and you’d really got a symbolized landscape ready-made for you; you’d got a Victorian slum full of a particular sort of life which could be turned into metaphor, i.e. the silver filth thing, which is a visual and moral metaphor. And over this scraped hill these flats were being built and put in the poem but I took it as read that the blocks of the flats were built on intellectual models of the people who were going to be moved into them, they were built graphed, all the ordinary little hopes and quite large corruptions of urban politics and contract tampering and this sort of business. Without going into details, without knowing any details, you just got a nationwide/worldwide picture of the way these things are done. It was just a counter. For me that’s an assumption; it’s not a social poem as such. It’s not meaning to make a social point but to assume the social point. Somebody who would read my poem, I would imagine, would see the scene much that way. And the use of the word “conscience” there is simply sceptical, that conscience is what makes the people who run a big city, the people who are in public life, whatever makes people go into public life, what they do. If you like, it’s conscience, it’s blood money, it’s reformism. But it’s a term like any other.
ERWIN: You don’t feel a strong urgency though, in general, to encounter temporal problems and work into them through your poetry, other than a sort of anonymous centre of humanity in the city, and so forth?
FISHER: You mean to write activist or political poetry?
ERWIN: In a sense, yes.
FISHER: No, I don’t. This is largely a matter of language, and the relation of language to perception. There are a lot of people who have the social view on general issues that I might have. It’s very commonly accessible. Social views or political views tend to get interesting when they’re apocalyptic, and mine aren’t apocalyptic. So they don’t naturally take the form of images. But as a poet I’m an image maker, and I wouldn’t sloganize a mass of really quite scattered or branching or complicated reactions to social matters; I wouldn’t want to sloganize them into an image. I don’t think it’s any use for the sort of writer I am to do that. If your image is capable of being moralized, in this country particularly, it will be. The moral will be screwed out of it. I deplore this; it’s a simplifying tendency. In this country people take a little bit of poetry, a little bit of literature, and if there’s a moral in it, however crude, it will be taken, it will be coarsened still further, it’ll be used and remembered and used and remembered over and over again. And people stop reading, people stop attending. And I’m very wary about writing even single poems which could be the rallying point of my own little area of work. A sort of hit single among the things I’ve written. For my taste I moralize too much already.
ERWIN: Do you find then that the things you’re working with and the kind of filth and corruption that you encounter in, for example, the poem “For Realism” that you mention, is that kind of thing, do you think, in a timeless centre throughout the history of man? Are the problems and situations that we’re in that you’re working on not temporally bound, but continuous without modulation?
FISHER: I don’t think of them like that. They’re certainly historical matters, and they can be ideologically plotted. And I suppose in thinking about them ecologically, socially, I would use that kind of technique, thinking about them. You know, hypocrisy, idealism and so forth, they’re going to come out of certain predisposing things which are large movements, which are historically/culturally visible. I don’t see them in terms of any abiding ethic.
I think, insofar as any of this comes out in the poems, it would be that the poems obviously are sceptical in all sorts of ways. They’re sceptical formulations of life, systemizations; the poems are anarchic. The poems represent, if you like, an anarchic response to — not so much social issues, things which come out of society and which stand out and can be put in newspapers — but to the whole rubble, the whole mass of tiny interlaced circumstances that carry you along, make the present in which you exist. In that field, I haven’t any sense of an ahistorical ethic. I mean, my heroes are people like Schweik and Brecht, heroes who are committed to strange pragmatic reactions to circumstances even against their own interests.
RASULA: Your work has been largely oriented around consciousness of place: the city, the ship, interiors (with various figures), “Matrix,” “The Glenthorne Sequence.” Have you been influenced by American efforts in this direction: Olson, Ginsberg, Dorn? In “The Six Deliberate Acts,” in “Matrix,” are the lines “The more he looked / the more he saw.” I’d like to ask about the notion of place as central perceptive location. By that I mean, that a necessary function of a man’s developing sensibility to himself is his sensitivity to environment. Does this have something to do with your use of place in your works, your manner of making the act of writing an act of seeing more?
FISHER: Several parts to that. I’ve been told that I’ve been influenced by Americans. An enormous number of people come to mind, some American, some not. You might just as well, for me, talk about Rilke’s Paris or Kafka’s Prague or the imaginary towns that Paul Klee made up or Kokoschka’s paintings of towns he worked in. That is, my sense of place is a very – I won’t say it’s an ordinary, but maybe it’s a childlike sense of place. A matter of simple appetite. An idea that places may berich in various ways. Bits of places may subdivide into further bits of places. It’s a very simple relation to appetite.
Fascination with a location — I don’t want to duck out too hard from the American tag here, but it could as well be those little bits you get at the back of Italian primitive paintings, the cities on hilltops, as any sort of possibly theoretical concern with place, such as you get in Olson or Ed Oorn. That sort of work seems to me to be very necessary for them. And those two, very particularly, USE the idea of location in America inevitably quite differently from the way in which any Englishman COULD use a sense of location, or could use a sort of game of time axis versus place axis. It’s meaningful for me as I read them. But not for me. I mean, it’s commonplace to say that for an Englishman looking at place, compared to an American his thing has got to be historical He’s only got to look out of his window and something a few hundred years old is going to stick through his awareness. And you can see this, even in my own small migration from a city to this rural, fairly rural, sort of place. I’ve become much more aware of history, and I take a good deal of pleasure in seeing the medieval or the very English things of hundreds and hundreds of years of, say, farming. I’m interested in this. But that’s a matter of very ordinary interest.
When I was writing the “City” poems, and particularly this is when I was first writing with any sort of sense of something that I must do for myself (and this was around the time of late 20’s, time of being 30); when I was doing that I quite simply had a sense of place which was not culturally extensive, it didn’t extend into history at all, even though in the “City” pieces I invoke the 19th century culture versus the 20th century culture. But historically that’s very simple, it’s really of very little subtlety, and it doesn’t, as it were, attempt to invoke the historical meaning of the behaviour of the people on the ground in anything like the way Olson does.
What I was faced with was something quite personal, which was the sensation of having lived for a very long time (and I’m not a traveller at all, I stay very much in one place), having lived for a very long time in and having had my consciousness of a particular large nondescript undesigned environment which was, as it happened, an expanding industrial city, which was a deposit of all sorts of inadvertent byproducts of ideas. In many cases the cultural ideas, the economic ideas, had disappeared into the graveyards of people who had the ideas. But the byproducts in things like street layouts, domestic architecture, where the schools were, how anything happened — all these things were left all over the place as a sort of script, an indecipherable script with no key. And the interesting thing for me was that the culture, particularly the metropolitan culture, the literary culture, had no alphabet to offer for simply talking about what I saw all the time. I mean, when I say in “City,” “most of it’s never been seen,” it’s a provocative phrase; it wasn’t verbalized, it wasn’t talked about. And there I wasn’t interested really at all in the particular city, but in the phenomena of having a perceptual environment which was taken as read, which was taken as to be assumed and not a thing for which any vocabulary needed to exist. Consequently in historical terms that needed only to be very thin. I was talking about really my own time. And in the work I’d be bouncing the feelings I had, which were the feelings of a rather belated adolescence. I was coming back to the city in my late twenties at a time when it was being rebuilt. And I was also in a state of life when I could remember childhood — I was far enough away from childhood to have an intensity about some memories. And again I’d had a fairly inarticulate childhood, a childhood where I had a lot of sensations going in, but not a very — you know, I wasn’t a child writer or anything of that sort, a child reader. There were still things left in my own perception which were unsorted. And there was another thing which was again merely personal — my father was dying, and he was very closely associated with the city, with these areas over a period of forty years. Seeing this life ending, and the inevitable process of turning up old photographs, old apprenticeship papers, extended time that made you realize more than usually how much the place was dependent upon very evanescent, temporal, subjective renderings of it, which might never BE rendered. And at that point my own lifetime was extended through his. Really the place in there is a way of exploring inner space rather than in any way attempting to do justice either to the place as itself or to having any large conception of place. I can only say that as a non-traveller I take it for granted that if I were to have set up in late youth or early manhood or even now to trot the globe and be an exile and never stay in one place I couldn’t get out of my blood the fact which I fairly recently worked out, which is that until I was 13 years old I didn’t sleep a night outside the city of Birmingham, for one reason or another. And probably only spent a couple of nights outside the house I was born in. And I lived in the house I was born in until I was 23. This mere factor of having gone outside the city into the countryside or to nearby towns only for the day, coming back at night, this was the sort of people we were. And even then going fairly short distances for very short periods — that quite heavy inertia and if you like accidental, though it doesn’t sound accidental, it sounds like a sort of psychosis — there’s a circumstantial adherence to one place with the consequent inevitability of having your mind made up enormously of impressions like that. It’s where I was at, what I had to work with. [….]